Tuesday, August 9, 2011

One Dimensional Man's Bike

'Thought bike' (Wired)
I'm guessing most reading this have heard of electronic shifting for bicycles. The technology is not new, but has in fact  been in use since the early 1990s. Mavic's ZAP system introduced the bike world to electrified shifting, and their components were raced in the PRO peloton for years. In fact, Chris Boardman used the system for eight seasons. It was relatively simple, featuring a couple toggle switches, albeit for the rear derailleur alone. However, the second iteration of ZAP was wireless, and fraught with problems. The project died. 

Fast forward to 2009, and Shimano releases Di2, the electronic Dura Ace group.  Having learned from the ZAP project, Shimano came pretty close to nailing Di2. The system is already in wide use in both the PRO peloton and the amateur ranks, and with the release of the electronic Ultegra group, the technology is nearly certain to secure a stable foothold in the market. 

For all the success Shimano has seen with their electronic shifting system, many a consumer will still ask themselves: 'Do I want this...do I need this?' Sure, some will gravitate toward electronic systems for their wow-factor alone. Others will perceive an opportunity to increase performance. While Di2's performance is not night-and-day better than conventional Dura- Ace, riders do report it is very precise, some going as far as to say it is the 'pinnacle of shifting technology.' Tubulars perform better than clinchers too, but its up to the rider to decide whether the performance gains these technologies offer outweight their added cost, complexity, and when things go wrong, inconvenience? 

For my riding, electronic systems are not justified. That is, for a regular road bike or mountain bike application. However, if I were taking time trialling very seriously, I could see myself attracted to using a toggle switch on the aero bars. This would eliminate the bar end shifters on the bars, and actually make shifting easier. I doubt the aerodynamic savings would be significant, nor would the ease of shifting be drastically improved; however, there would be gains. At least there is a rationale for using this technology. 

While bike companies are working on integrating elecronic shifting systems into road bike designs, others are dreaming up novel ideas for how to apply these technologies in yet bolder ways. One recent example had me checking the story's date to see whether it was recycled from April 1. Why? Because the project featured in the story is ludicrous: Toyota Prius Bicycle.

Posted on Bikerumor.com, the Prius X Parlee (PXP) is indeed the answer to the question NOBODY was asking: 'What if I could make my bike shift by merely thinking it?' Well, nobody except Toyota. Esenially, they worked with Parlee and Deeplocal to develop a super aerodynamic road bike for non-racers that can be shifter via iPhone or brain waves. All you need is you charged iPhone, a backpack of electronic gear, a helmet with neurotransmitters installed, and Di2. This 'mash up' was constructed from off the shelf parts - save the custom, wind tunnel tested Parlee - and does in fact work. But was anybody asking for it? Nope.

The reason nobody was thinking this question is that shifting is already easy, especially with Di2. An experienced rider, you know, the type who actually needs ultra precise shifting, doesn't need to think, 'shift up.' They just do it. Its called neural conditioning, or habituation; its second nature. Toggles can be placed at the hood, in the drop, or on the flat of the bar - wherever hands sit. Is hands free shifting necessary in any way? 

Putting the question of whether there is any rationale for developing a cybernetic shifting system aside, we can consider the 'Prius philosphy' that underpins this project: aerodynamics, innovative design. Ok, neat idea, transfer those ideals. What about low carbon footprint, and energy conservation? Somehow those qualities of the Prius (and yes, those are perceived, as embodied energy and life cycle considerations might paint a different picture) don't come through in the PXP. Instead, we have a bike that requires a lot of electronics to perform a function that was carried out by downtube shifters for generations. In other words, its an environmental abomination. The bike's aerodynamics are moot under a rider who needs cybernetic shifting for lack of bike handling skills and training; one does not benefit much from aero frames below 30kph. So the inevitable question arises: is 'can' synonymous with 'should'? In other words, just because we can build a cybernetic bike, should we? Is cycling, or, more broadly, life, all about making everything easier? If so, to what end? Do we really want to be steered? Is this a paradigm example of technological rationality?


Steve said...

Nice to see you post this up Matt, I too did a bit of a double take when I saw the PXP. My first thought was 'why would anyone want that?' I'm also very skeptical of 'collabos.' Ultimately I think I ended up on the other side of the fence than you did.

The thing that excites me most about electronic shifting and projects like this isn't that it opens up new possibilities in terms of convenience or neccessarily performance on the face of things but that it opens up a whole new facet of bicycle design to smaller more innovative companies and individuals. There's a wealth of hackers and makers who will see this and start to dream of the possibilities and start coming up with cool projects on their own. It's always been this kind of innovation that has brought about the best bicycle designs. It reminds me of all the early constructeur bikes that came with their own custom derailleurs and shifters. My guess is that as the price of electronic derailleurs comes down there will be an explosion of DIY shifters, derailleurs, etc. I'm just not prepared to guess what those designs will improve upon or do to the sport.

Can't say I disagree on the environmental side of things though. There are some fundamental flaws in the way that both bicycles and electronics are designed that makes any discussion of sustainability in most current models disingenuous. I guess one question out of the whole sustainable design thing would be whether it's possible to achieve both peak performance and sustainability at the same time in design or sport? To achieve in sport you eventually have to give up the possibility of sustainability and empty the tank to win. Can both concepts be held at the same time when talking about sport if its main purpose is to push the limits of performance?

Bigger Dummy said...

Remember Shimano Airshifters for DH MTB? Biopace (oval) chainrings anyone?

Solutions in search of a problem. Innovation for innovation's sake is sometimes just dumb application of design and science and more often just dumb business

Madmountainmike said...

uggggg....more machines designed to take the "thinking and acting" away from humans....we need to do MORE sensing and tactile acting on instinct, not less. Making things easier has more often than not lead to the deterioration of human's abilities.

Anonymous said...

as a person with a disability and who rode a hand bike for many years I would have given anything for something that would shift without taking my hands off the crank (which both steers and turns the chain) power cannot be applied when only one hand is on the crank. both have to be or the steering will turn.. having to stop "peddling" to shift was very difficult and almost impossible on a long slow upgrade.

wish I had one when I rode

Bob, an ole handbiker

Matt Surch said...

Bob, I can see electronic toggles on the handles of the hand-crank. Not hands-free, but hands-on, a bump of the thumb would be enough to shift. Sequential shifting programming would mean only one pair of buttons would be required to shift through the whole range of gears. For people with atypical bike formats, electronic shifting seems quite handy. Telepathic shifting, however, seems rather over the top.